Sara Wachter-Boettcher podcast interview: future-ready content
In Episode 2 of the Together London Podcast, I speak to Sara Wachter-Boettcher, author of the upcoming Rosenfeld Media book “Content Everywhere”, about content strategy, future ready content, and how to change organisations. Don’t miss Sara’s London workshop on 21 September.
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Read the transcript
Jonathan Kahn: I’m talking to Sara Wachter-Boettcher who’s a content strategist and writer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and she is writing a book for Rosenfeld Media called “Content Everywhere.” Sara, thanks so much for joining me.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher: Thanks so much for having me, Jonathan.
Jonathan: We first met at the first content strategy forum, which was in Paris in April 2010, and you’d come all the way from Arizona for this event. Can you talk to us about why you went all the way from Arizona to France to talk about content strategy?
Sara: Sure. At the time, it wasn’t so long ago but it feels like a long time ago now, 2010, there weren’t a lot of places to talk about content strategy, or where content strategy conversations seemed to be happening. When I saw that there was going to be a whole conference dedicated to the topic of content strategy I was ecstatic and I thought I need to figure out how I can get there, I need to make this happen. At the time, I had been stalking Kristina Halvorson for a couple of years, paying attention to what she was saying and where she was going. I saw her at An Event Apart in 2009 and from there I started seeing all these other people who were talking about content strategy related things, and feeling like there was this loosely formed network out there, and wanting to be a part of it.
When that conference came up, it was much more about how do I convince somebody to send me here? Than it was whether or not it was worth it to me to go all the way to Paris to talk about content strategy. First of all, I wanted that community really badly, and secondly, who doesn’t want to go to Paris?
I spent a long time convincing my company to let me go and they did. It was a really good experience that I think was very foundational for really getting involved in this work for the past couple of years.
Jonathan: How have you seen that change? That was the first content strategy conference ever, really. We’ve now had that one, we’ve had CS Forum London, and we’ve had two Confabs, which the two of us have been to all of those events. How did that compare to your expectations or your hopes?
Sara: I think that my personal experience changed dramatically over the course of the past couple of years and, in some of the same ways but also in some other ways, the overall experience has changed a lot. For me personally, because I’ve gone to these events a few times, because I’ve started to meet some of the same people over and over, I feel like I have a really strong connection to the content strategy community. People are really open and want to make friends with new content strategists. There aren’t that many of us still, so everybody is definitely interested in meeting new people. That’s been really beneficial on the personal level.
I think in terms of the events overall, they have just grown up a lot in that the audience is more excited to be there. People are more on the same page about what content strategy is, so the conversations are getting more advanced beyond, “this is what content strategy is and here’s why it’s important” to talking about tons of sub-issues within the field.
I think that as interest grows and as the amount of people who are interested in talking about the topic grows, these conferences necessarily help the discipline grow up, and it’s great.
Jonathan: Cool. I think this is correct. You started out in this job you had in Arizona for an agency as a writer and you ended up, when you eventually left the company, as a head of a content strategy team and you were on the management team for that agency. Is that correct?
Jonathan: Can you tell us about that?
Sara: Definitely. I think that really, my path into content strategy starts earlier, of course, back in college, or university as you’d say. There I studied journalism and what I was really interested in was feature writing and long form stuff, but when I moved to Arizona with my boyfriend, who’s now my husband, he was going into a PhD program so I came out to Arizona with him. There weren’t a lot of journalism jobs. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing, and I kind of fell into copywriting, stumbled into it. At first, I was writing a lot of print advertisements and stuff and it was kind of fun at first because it was about being clever all the time and then it got really boring, really fast.
When I moved into doing web work, what was interesting to me was that you were working with a lot more complex sets of information, and it was less about how to simply be clever and it was more about how to tell stories that were multi-faceted, and that connected across different pages.
That was a big jump for me in figuring out that that was much more interesting to me. Once that had happened, though, and I started moving into doing content strategy work it was really because as a web writer I kept stumbling across the same problems over and over…
Problems that were really frustrating me as the writer but were also causing lots of project delays or making clients come up with content that they were never actually going to come up with or issues where the people who were deciding how things were going to work and where things were going to live weren’t actually think about what it needed to communicate.
I just started pointing out those problems enough times that people started inviting me sooner and sooner and seeing that things worked better when I was there.
Jonathan: OK. Then how did this turn from being a writer to leading this team and being on the management? Is it because you just kept turning up and helping enough that they just kept asking you to take more and more responsibility on?
Sara: Yeah, to some extent, at first. I did that for a while, and I got deep enough into projects that people started trusting that I was an essential part of that team. I think a lot of that was also, then, being very vocal and being willing to step up and say, “OK. I think we should do things differently and here’s how and here’s why and here’s how I want to make that happen.” I did that for a long enough time that…What happened is that, people across the agency, and it wasn’t a big company, it was maybe 40 people or so. Big company, it was maybe 40 people or so. People across the agency on a bunch of different teams started coming to me to answer questions constantly, about everything, all the time. I think it was because I would stop, think about it, I would help them rough out an answer, and send them on their way.
When the owners of the company realized how much of that was happening they asked me to join the senior management team and help set agency direction and be in charge of a bigger team of people.
Jonathan: How did content strategy as a discipline fit into that role they invented for you?
Sara: Content strategy was always core to what I did. I was really helping a few people on my team get into content strategy and get into elevating their skills. Some people had skills in writing or people had skills in managing and monitoring social media. I was helping them think about their things a little more broadly. I think that one of the biggest ways that my transition in job affected how I think about content strategy was that I started seeing the wide range of places that thinking about content and thinking about your audience and what you’re communicating to them would help. I stopped thinking about content just in course of certain types of projects and started thinking about it much more organizationally.
Jonathan: OK. Fantastic. I want to talk to you about…You seem to now have a really strong focus in your work at the moment on this idea of future ready content. I just want to read a little bit from an article you wrote for A List Apart called “Future Ready Content” in which you said, “Our content is far from future ready. When extracted from the carefully designed pages on which it lives today, most content turns into undifferentiated text, its meaning lost as it spills into any container you give it.” Can you talk to us about that? What does that mean for, for example, responsive web design?
Sara: Sure. I think, for one, a lot of times when I’ve been talking to people about these issues with content and making content ready for mobile and for the future in general. People get really stuck on responsive design and they do think responsive is really interesting, but it’s just one potential way that you might deal with this. I definitely think that there’s a lot of broader issues involved there. I think responsive design is very interesting because it’s routinely really treated like it’s a design and development problem and if you’re not thinking about the content in responsive design, it’s going to be really, really hard to make responsive scale.
What I’m talking about here is just that…When you see a lot of responsive sites right now you see them as being oftentimes really small, or you’ll see a large organization like a university will make a few high level pages responsive. Everybody gets very excited about that being a new, beautiful example of responsive web design.
Jonathan: On the university page there will be some pages where if you’re looking at it on a phone or an iPad the layout will change and those pages will somehow be optimized for that device?
Sara: Right. Yes. A lot of times it might just be the home page and the admissions page, maybe just two, three, four top tier pages that a lot of people visit will be designed so that they flex for different devices and then when you get any deeper than that it doesn’t hold. The reason that that’s really hard for these organizations to make that responsive approach go all the way through is that they’re not thinking about their content in terms of systems and types of content and structures where they can then make decisions about how things would shift on smaller screens or larger screens at a more systematic level. They’re still trying to make those decisions very much page by page, and that’s impossible to do when you have sites that have thousands of pages. You’ll never get there that way.
Jonathan: You can do content aware responsive design on a very small scale where you actually have interaction designers actually working with the exact content that is going to work for this actual page, individually designing these things to work across the different platforms for those few pages. When you take it to what we think of as content managed, or templated design, no one’s actually doing that in an effective way yet.
Sara: Yeah. I think that’s happening very little. You see it on things like blogs where there’s lots of blog posts, then that works fine because all blog posts are kind of the same. When you start getting a lot of different types of content, that’s what people aren’t necessarily thinking about enough. I think that if you’re not thinking about content with some level of structure behind it without thinking about what are the different chunks and pieces and parts that make it whole then it’s really difficult to make good decisions about how it might be broken up and rearranged and still make sense when you’re on a small screen or a really large screen.
Jonathan: You are basically saying that the way we are currently practicing content strategy itself is kind of single platform?
Sara: I think that that’s largely true. I think there’s a lot of people who are starting to think about multiple platforms and starting to think about content across devices and channels and all the places it might go, but that’s definitely not everybody. A lot of people who are working on content strategy, especially when people are focusing on things like messaging and content quality, which are really important, but that doesn’t necessarily force you to get at the heart of how this content is going to work at all these different places.
People are still very much thinking about pages. The way people talk about auditing content, for example. It’s what are all the pages that exist and then it’s just a big list of pages. When you think about content in that way, it’s all undifferentiated text. Every page is the same as the next. I think that’s not really true.
Jonathan: That’s the reality. The reality is you find the content of an organization right now by looking at loads of pages and very few organizations would actually have some structured content store behind it that’s serving it out.
Sara: Right. If you want to move to a place where your organization can have some structured content store then when you are auditing all of those pages of content that you have right now it’s not just a matter of is this content any good, or is this content out of date. It’s also a matter of saying, “Hey, what is this content and how can we start putting it into some logical types and buckets and how do we make sense of it at a more structural level?” If it’s unstructured now, that’s the only way you’re going to start fixing that problem.
Jonathan: Let’s talk about your book. You’re writing a book called “Content Everywhere” for Rosenfeld Media. Can you explain what the book is and why you decided to write it?
Sara: Yes. The book is really about what we’ve just been talking about. How do we start looking at our content differently? How do we look at content that is more than just pages and documents and start thinking about what it really is and what it’s communicating and giving it the right structure to help support what it’s trying to communicate? Talking a lot about, if we do that, if we can start structuring content in different ways, if we can start thinking about the different pieces that make it whole, then here are some different things we can do with it in the future, we can do with it right now.
We can make it more connectable to other pieces of content. We can have smarter content within a single site because it’s more interconnected and meaningful to users. We can get it onto mobile devices more easily, whether that’s a responsive site or whether you do have a need for mobile applications. You can have an API.
All these different things that you can do with it, but that you can’t do with it until you’ve given it structure and until you’ve given it a meaningful structure. Sorry.
Jonathan: Go ahead.
Sara: I got into the project, I got into this idea of writing the book. Because I was getting a little bit burned out on some of the day to day stuff at the agency I was at. I was working really hard, working a lot of hours, and feeling a little stuck. SI started blogging a bit about content strategy and trying to work out some of these new things I was hearing about. I’d read Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Web Design book and I’d been thinking about more information architecture related issues and some of the work I was doing at the time. All of this stuff was buzzing around my head and I needed an outlet for it and as I started writing about it on a blog I was approached by somebody who encouraged me to write a book and actually connected me with Lou Rosenfeld to make it happen.
At the time I was saying I would really love a good challenge and writing a book is definitely a challenge so I went for it.
Jonathan: Who is this for, this book?
Sara: This book is obviously for content strategists. I think anybody who is already identifying as a content strategist has a lot to gain from starting to think about content across platforms and starting to think about structuring content. In addition to that, I think that’s probably obvious, I’m a content strategist, I’m writing for other people like me, but in addition to that I think there’s a lot to learn for people who are in information architecture and user experience design. I think a lot of the skills that people in those fields already have about organizing and structuring information at a more macro or hierarchical level, those are things that can be applied to how we need to structure content. It’s just shifting thinking and thinking about things that are more micro level. I think this is going to be really important for that whole field as well.
Jonathan: How do you see the more traditional user experience usability, information architecture, interactive design disciplines working together with this deeper understanding of structured content and what it means for organizations?
Sara: I think that when you start talking about the broad user experience fields, you really tend to get people who are…most of the conversation tends to be from a consultant or an agency perspective, which is fine. I have that perspective as well. I think that one of the things that’s often missing from the conversation is how these things are going to affect an organization long term. A lot of times it’s more focused on, “OK. We’re designing a site, we’re designing a thing that’s going to be built right now.” When you start looking at how content is going to actually be planned, and created, and published over time and across channels and across devices, you can’t afford to just think about the right now of the project. You really have to be thinking about how it’s going to affect the organization and what the organization needs to do differently to support it and I think that’s a big shift.
Jonathan: Which is what we mean by strategy.
Sara: It is. I think a lot of people who are talking about strategy are missing some of that and I think that’s one of the big limitations in our field right now.
Jonathan: Let’s talk about this workshop we’re doing together. I’m really excited that you’re coming all the way to London and you’re going to be co-presenting a workshop with me and Kate Kenyon here in September and it’s called “Using Content Strategy to Change Your Organization.” The 21st of September. We each have a little section in this workshop and then we’re all going to come together. Your section is about structured content and I’m just reading a little bit from the blurb. “If we want content that’s truly flexible and sustainable then we have to deal with the messy, complicated, politically charged organizations that are creating it in the first place.” Can you talk to us about that?
Sara: Yeah. I think this is huge and not talked about nearly enough. You can start structuring content and you can start storing it into a CMS in chunks and modules and thinking about how it’s going to go across devices, but just like we were talking about with the whole UX field being oftentimes very focused on the now and not necessarily on how organizations are going to own it long term. It’s the same thing. You have to be able to get all of the different departments and all the different people with all of the different opinions on the same page about that. Right now, when you get into an organization, any big organization, you start hearing things about, “that’s marketing’s content and this is PR content, that belongs to this product manager,” and it’s very siloed by departments who think of everything as some level of ownership.
What are my pages going to look like? That doesn’t make any sense when you start saying no, actually your content about your product you manage could be in all these different places at these different times. You have to get people on a different page than thinking about what is my page going to look like. It’s more about how is this content that I’m contributing going to help our user or customer?
Jonathan: It’s like when you phone up the call center and you say, “I have a problem with the service,” and then they say, “You can’t talk to me, you have to talk to somebody else.” Websites are still like that. Web experiences. You just can deal with one internal silo and you have no idea, as a customer, what silo you’re even supposed to be speaking to.
Sara: Exactly. Your customers don’t care which department is responsible. They just need an answer to their question or they just need to buy the product or whatever it is that they need to do. If you’re thinking about content as being owned by the individual departments, it’s going to be very, very difficult for you to make that content flexible and reusable and portable. If your customers can’t get your content in a way that makes sense to them, not the way that it makes sense to you in your little individual silo, then they’re going to go somewhere else.
Jonathan: What can people do? Most people are actually, in-house at least, they’re working in a silo. They work in marketing, or they work in technical support, or whatever it is, or they work in product development. How can structured content help somebody who works within a silo?
Sara: I think that as you’re starting to look at how you can structure content or starting to look at how you can reuse content it’s really important to start having conversations with more people and starting to arm yourself with enough information and arm yourself with some ideas to bring to management or to bring to people on other teams. Karen McGrane talks about this a lot with how mobile does something you can use as a wedge, using mobile as a way into a much harder conversation people don’t want to have. Everybody knows they need to deal with mobile and a lot of times they have no idea where to start or it seems really overwhelming or expensive.
If you can start saying things like, “Hey, I know we’re trying to figure out what we’re going to do for mobile. If we can start doing this with our content we can actually get to a mobile experience much more efficiently and that’ll save budget and that’ll be less risky than investing in this whole other thing.” When you can start talking like that then you can start opening some of those doors.
It’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to be perfect, but I think it’s really important to just start trying to talk about it a little bit more, and to be open to talking about it with people from other teams and less closed off, and focused only on your little group.
Jonathan: It sounds like it’s not just about sitting there and working out, from a theoretical point of view or a technical point of view, how something should be structured in a database. It’s as much about working out what that means in terms of changing the organization. Then practically, how you can start to get people in the organization to support that change and the change in the way they’re working as well.
Sara: Definitely. I think if you are working out something conceptually that that’s a great time to start talking to people about what you’re working out conceptually and sharing it with them, making them feel like they’re part of that so that they understand what you’re trying to accomplish. Too often it seems like you can’t get the IT team or the development team to listen to what the communications team wants because they don’t understand what they want that in the first place. If you’re thinking more at the conceptual level about how things should work to support whatever your initiative is and you can share that with others in a way that’s more about getting their input and their expertise from their point of view, then I think you’ll be a lot more successful getting things implemented.
Jonathan: In terms of this actual workshop, what are the things you’re going to cover and who do you think would benefit from attending?
Sara: I think that I’m going to talk a bit about how do you actually start looking at content in a more structured way and what are some of the steps you take practically to do that? I’m also going to talk a lot about how do you start putting the pieces together of content and mobile and your organization and start being able to have the confidence to start conversations with management or have the tools to talk to other teams or other departments that you might be siloed off from. I think it’s that I want people to be able to walk away from the workshop both with some practical skills they can use as they’re actually getting in and structuring things and some more communication skills and confidence. Like I said, confidence to do this, that this is something they can start tackling.
Jonathan: What kind of people or job titles or roles do you think would benefit from this workshop?
Sara: I would hope that anybody who’s really thinking about content in their organization and thinking about the role of content and is interested in mobile, or is interested in being more efficient, would find this really interesting. Not necessarily only people who are in content strategy or only people who are in some editorial capacity, but anybody who’s trying to make sense of all the different ways content is being published and how to make that work better and more sustainably in the future.
Jonathan: I’m just thinking about this theme of using content strategy to change your organization. Is that how you’ve approached it in your content strategy work up until now, as making whatever needs to happen editorially be part of some larger change that needs to happen within the organization?
Sara: I wish I could say that’s how every project I’ve worked on has gone. That would be great. A lot of the reason I think that this is so important is that I worked on a lot of projects where that didn’t really happen and where it’s really hard to make things stick, especially being from the outside. I’ve been working as a consultant, or in an agency for a long time and so being on the outside and saying here’s how you should do things and not getting the support, not getting enough buy-in internally to make that stay long term, that’s really disappointing. When you see things that would have been a good idea never really come out right, that’s disappointing.
I’ve found that when I’m able to get deeper into organizations and when the organization is internally really excited about something the results are just so much better.
Jonathan: Yeah. The way I see this is that as an industry or as the whole economy we’re kind of stuck. We can point to challenges and we can say, “Wow, we’re really having trouble getting the user experience of X, Y, and Z meet our expectations or meet our users’ expectations,” but in terms of how we can do anything about that beyond distracting quick fixes, or fancy new distracting things like suddenly opening a Facebook page or whatever. It feels like we genuinely believe that we are stuck and this department wouldn’t agree with it or this is outside my job or I can’t do my job to the standard that I want because of all these reasons. I feel like we need to begin to work at how to get unstuck and that is a strategy piece and a convincing advocacy piece for what is this problem, how is it risking the future of this company, and how can we talk about it in a positive way.
Sara: Yeah. I think that you see a lot of organizations trying to get unstuck by outsourcing. It’s like I’ll hire somebody to build me a new website and that’s going to solve the problem and that never solves the problem. I think that that’s created a system where a lot of organizations expect the consultants or external people that they hire to just fix it for them, and that’s oftentimes how services are sold. I think it would be much more effective for everybody involved and much less frustrating for all parties, if it was much more about helping an organization own things internally and change internally and using outside agencies and consultants to lead some of that and bring some of the expertise in areas that aren’t going to be part of the company to make that happen.
Jonathan: I think when you talk about structured content, when I’ve been thinking about how the stuff that you’re talking about affects companies. Just for an example, at some new-ish start-up that we know and love on the web, someone like Zipcar or AirBNB, we think about how important their content is to their business. It’s not just a page in a CMS that’s describing the car or that’s describing the apartment at AirBNB. In fact, that is actually the core of how they are making money and the product itself. The idea that you would, A, get an external company to fix that makes no sense, or the idea that you would have a short time period campaign or project where you would fix that makes no sense because it is the business, it is the product.
At least, it’s the representation of the product for your customers, which is almost the same thing. I think that’s where the model in which we currently have for how we do UX work is broken.
Sara: Yeah. I think that it’s not like UX people have been doing it wrong, or that organizations are somehow not focusing on the right things. Those things could all be true. I think it’s really about all parties trying to change that. It’s not just consultants who need to offer services differently because they’re offering the services that businesses want. They want these problem solvers so that’s how you position. It’s definitely something that has to shift on both sides and change is hard. A lot of what you and I talk about and a lot of what we’ll be talking about in the workshop is very much, “how do you start doing that and how do you start thinking in that way?” I think that can be really powerful for people.
Jonathan: We have to take responsibility and I definitely take that point. When people are buying badly and people are selling badly there’s two people who are not looking after the long term interests of their organizations. For me, the beautiful thing about this community, the content strategy community, is the theme for me is actually honesty. We can sit and we can say this is the ways we’ve screwed up over the last 15 years or the way that we are working now makes no sense and has these negative consequences, et cetera. That honesty of saying we need to take more responsibility or this is unsustainable or we’re never going to fix mobile by repeatedly chasing after one specific platform fix. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this problem and I think that’s where the real value, for me, of content strategy as a community and as a discipline is.
Just, literally, let’s be honest about the problem.
Sara: Yeah. I think content strategy has been very good about behaving in that way and it’s part of, I think, a larger trend toward businesses that need to be more honest and authentic and human. I think that content strategy is one facet of that, but it’s a really important one and it’s a great way to start doing that.
Jonathan: Fantastic. Well, I’m really, really excited about this workshop and I’ve got to say thank you for coming all the way from America to come and give it and it’s going to be fantastic. Thank you for giving us your time today in this podcast. It’s been great to chat. I hope to have another podcast with you soon.
Sara: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me and I always look for a good excuse to go to Europe so I think it’ll be really great. Thanks, Jonathan.